Archive for September, 2018

Syria rebels surrender heavy arms in Deraa city

Saturday 14/07/2018

DAMASCUS – Syrian rebels in the southern city of Deraa were surrendering their heavy weapons to government forces on Saturday, state media said, under a deal brokered by regime ally Russia.

State news agency SANA said opposition fighters in the neighborhood of Deraa al-Balad, a district in the city’s rebel-held southern half, handed over heavy ammunition and other equipment.

It came a day after the regime and rebels began dismantling the dirt barriers that had divided the city for years.

The agreement reached on Wednesday will see Deraa city — the cradle of Syria’s seven-year uprising — fall back into government control.

Negotiated by Moscow, it provides for rebels to hand over heavy- and medium-duty weapons and to “reconcile” legally with the government, according to state media.

Those who rejected the deal would be allowed safe passage out of the city.

The terms mirror a broader deal announced on July 6 for the entire province of Deraa, which would be implemented in three stages: the eastern countryside first, then the city, and finally the province’s west.

While rebels have handed over weapons to government forces in dozens of towns, no transfers of fighters or civilians to the opposition-held north have taken place yet.

The Deraa deals are the latest in a string of so-called “reconciliation” agreements that typically follow blistering military offensives.

After using the strategy to secure Damascus and other strategic parts of Syria since 2015, President Bashar al-Assad turned his attention to the south.

Beginning on June 19, Syrian and Russian bombardment pounded rebel areas in Deraa and the neighboring province of Quneitra, ostensibly protected by an internationally agreed ceasefire.

The onslaught came to an end with the July 6 ceasefire.

Regime forces now hold more than 80 percent of Deraa province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor that relies on a network of sources inside the country.

Some western areas of the province remain under opposition control, and the deal excludes a southwestern patch held by an affiliate of the Islamic State jihadist group.

Syria’s conflict has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: https://www.middle-east-online.com/en/syria-rebels-surrender-heavy-arms-deraa-city.

Assad enters revolution’s cradle, but Syrian war far from over

Friday 13/07/2018

BEIRUT – The rapid fall of Deraa city, the cradle of Syria’s uprising, is an important victory for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but the country’s devastating war is far from over, analysts say.

Russian-backed government forces raised the flag in Deraa city on Thursday, but the regime still has two regions outside its control — and influential neighbors — to contend with.

To the west, it will have to retake the Quneitra province bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, before moving on to a major battle in the north near the border with Turkey.

“Bashar al-Assad sent a signal with the fall of Deraa city that nowhere in Syria that has risen up against him will remain outside his reach,” said Nick Heras, an analyst at the Center for a New American Strategy.

It was in poverty-stricken Deraa that anti-Assad protests erupted in 2011, sparking an uprising that spiraled into a complex civil war.

Seven years into the conflict, Assad’s forces have sealed a deal for a handover of the city and are determined to retake the whole of the wider province of the same name on the border with Jordan.

More than 80 percent of Deraa province has returned to regime control, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor says, but rebels are resisting in its western countryside.

‘Special challenge’

“All of these images from Deraa of Assad’s flag flying are meant to hasten the process of negotiating deals” for these rebel holdouts, Heras said.

It is also intended to help the Assad regime retake the whole of southwest Syria, including Quneitra.

“The hope in Damascus is that the fall of Deraa will move the Israelis to a deal now to let Assad reconsolidate his rule in southwest Syria,” he said.

But, says Sam Heller of the International Crisis Group think-tank, Quneitra will “represent a special military and political challenge”.

The ICG said in a recent report that Israel had supported fighters in southern Syria since 2013 or 2014, apparently to “secure a buffer zone on its border”.

This week, Israel said it had carried out missile strikes on Syrian military posts in Quneitra, after intercepting what it said was an unarmed drone that had strayed into its territory.

Syria geographer Fabrice Balanche said Damascus securing Quneitra and the adjacent demilitarized zone would be “difficult because a deal is needed with the Israelis”.

“They are scared that the Syrian army will enter and then never leave,” he said, adding the missiles strikes overnight to Thursday were likely a “warning”.

Israel is particularly nervous over the presence of Iranians next door in Syria, where they have been backing Assad’s regime.

In recent months, a series of strikes in Syria that have killed Iranians have been attributed to Israel.

‘Mother of all battles’

The regime has retaken large parts of Syria with backing from its Russian ally since 2015, but few campaigns have been as quick as the one in Deraa.

A ceasefire was announced last week between opposition fighters and the regime, less than three weeks after the start of a deadly bombing campaign.

Still “it would be a mistake for the regime to let it go to its head and think that it had definitively won the war,” said Karim Bitar of the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Affairs.

“This war in Syria is no longer exclusively Syrian, but involves many international actors who consider they have not had their last word yet.”

These include not only Israel, but also foreign actors with interests in northern Syria, where analysts say Assad’s regime is likely to set its sights next.

Turkey-backed rebels hold land in the north, while US-supported Kurdish fighters are present in the northeast.

The northwestern province of Idlib, on the border with Turkey, is largely controlled by an alliance of jihadists and rebels led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

“Idlib, next up on Assad’s list, promises to be far harder fighting for his forces, a mother of all battles,” Heras said.

Turkey has taken in more than three million Syrian refugees displaced by the civil war, and is eager not to take in any more.

“Turkey has also indicated that for them they consider Idlib a red line,” Heller said.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: https://www.middle-east-online.com/en/assad-enters-revolutions-cradle-syrian-war-far-over.

Palestinians sort through 8 years of mail held by Israel

August 19, 2018

JERICHO, West Bank (AP) — Palestinian postal workers in the West Bank are sifting through eight years’ worth of undelivered mail held by Israel. In recent days the Palestinian postal staff in Jericho has been sorting through tons of undelivered mail in a room packed with letters, boxes and even a wheelchair.

The Palestinians say Israel has withheld delivery of post shipments to the Palestinian territories through its national postal service since 2010. According to Palestinian postage official Ramadan Ghazawi, Israel did not honor a 2008 agreement with the Palestinians to send and receive mail directly through Jordan. Mail was indeed delivered through Jordan but was denied entry by Israel, causing a years-long backlog.

“It was blocked because each time they (Israel) used to give us a reason and an excuse. Once they said the terminal, the building that the post was supposed to arrive to is not ready and once (they said) to wait, they’re expecting a larger checking machine (security scanner),” he said.

Israel says the sides came to an understanding about a year ago on postage delivery but that it has not yet resulted in a “direct transfer,” according to Cogat, the Israeli defense body responsible for Palestinian civilian affairs in the West Bank.

Cogat said in a statement that the one-time release of the ten and a half tons of mail was a “gesture.” Jericho resident Rami Baker said ordering goods by mail has been a challenge. “The problem that I suffer from is that the mail is very delayed. For example you order something and the website will tell you it will arrive within 20 to 30 days and after 30 days you get a note that it reached Jerusalem or Israel. After that, a day or two later, we come and check with the Palestinian post office here in Jericho and they say we did not receive it yet from the Israeli side and this thing takes months,” he said.

The development highlights the tight controls Israel maintains over many aspects — even the mundane like postal delivery — of Palestinian life.

Ex-Jordan MP: Abbas lost his legitimacy

August 31, 2018

Former Jordanian lawmaker Hind Al-Fayez said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has lost his legitimacy and everyone can assert that he is not working to benefit Palestinians.

Al-Fayez told Shehab.ps that the Palestinian Authority, which refuses to lift the siege on the Gaza Strip, confirms that it does not represent the Palestinians and that it is administered by Israel.

“While Gaza is suffering from siege and hardship and its people live in the largest prison in the world, Abbas imposes more sanctions on it. Does he care about the homeland or the people’s interest?” she asked.

“Mahmoud Abbas and his sons, who have billions of dollars in international banks, does he care about Gaza, the homeland or the people?” Al-Fayez added, stressing on the importance of the Great Marches of Return and breaking the siege on the Gaza Strip.

“The Palestinian child in Gaza uses paper and stone against the occupation, while the authority can only arrest resistance and partake in security coordination with the occupation,” she added.

Al-Fayez said the marches have strengthened Gaza’s position and – for the first time in the history of Arab-Israeli relations – there is a strong Arab party and that party is Gaza.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180831-ex-jordan-mp-abbas-lost-his-legitimacy/.

Jordan gives up idea of large nuclear power plant

June 29, 2018

The chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission, Dr. Khaled Toukan, announced today that his country has abandoned the idea of establishing a nuclear power plant, which was planned to be built with Russian technology with a capacity of 2,000 megawatt.

Dr. Toukan told a news conference that the commission has abandoned the construction of a large plant and will consider building small reactors. The chairman added that small reactors need less funding and are more likely to be sponsored internationally than large stations.

The official explained that the small reactors began to appear world wide after Fukushima nuclear disaster and the scientific developments that followed this incident.

He added that the Commission signed two memorandums of understanding with China National Nuclear Corporation to conduct economic feasibility studies of Chinese technology this year.

He clarified also that the Commission is currently negotiating with China to build the same reactor that China is currently constructing, indicating that no contract will be signed before the actual activation of the Chinese reactor and linking it to the network for two years at least.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180629-jordan-gives-up-idea-of-large-nuclear-power-plant/.

Lawsuit lays bare Israel-made hack tools in Mideast, Mexico

September 01, 2018

PARIS (AP) — One day late last year, Qatari newspaper editor Abdullah Al-Athbah came home, removed the SIM card from his iPhone 7 and smashed it to pieces with a hammer. A source had just handed Al-Athbah a cache of emails suggesting that his phone had been targeted by hacking software made by Israel’s NSO Group. He told The Associated Press he considered the phone compromised.

“I feared that someone could get back into it,” he said in an interview Friday. “I needed to protect my sources.” Al-Athbah, who edits Qatar’s Al-Arab newspaper, now has a new phone, a new SIM card and a new approach to email attachments and links. He says he never opens anything, “even from the most trusted circles in my life.”

Al-Athbah’s discovery touched off a process that has led, months later, to parallel lawsuits filed in Israel and Cyprus — and provided a behind-the-scenes look at how government-grade spyware is used to eavesdrop on everyone from Mexican reporters to Arab royalty.

The NSO Group did not immediately return messages seeking comment. The first lawsuit , filed in a Tel Aviv court on Thursday, carries a claim from five Mexican journalists and activists who allege they were spied on using NSO Group software. The second, filed in Cyprus, adds Al-Athbah to the list of plaintiffs.

Both draw heavily on the leaked material handed to the editor several months ago. Portions of the material — which appears to have been carefully picked and exhaustively annotated by an unknown party — appear to show officials in the United Arab Emirates discussing whether to hack into the phones of senior figures in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, including members of the Qatari royal family.

Al-Athba declined to identify his source and the AP was not immediately able to verify the authenticity of the material, some of which has already been entered into evidence in the Israeli case, according to Mazen Masri, a member of Al-Athbah’s legal team. But The New York Times, which first reported on the lawsuits earlier Friday, indicated that it had verified some of the cache, including a reference to an intercepted telephone conversation involving senior Arab journalist Abdulaziz Alkhamis. The Times said Alkhamis confirmed having had the conversation and said he was unaware that he was under surveillance.

The parallel lawsuits underline the growing notoriety of the NSO Group, which is owned by U.S. private equity firm Francisco Partners. One of the Mexican plaintiffs, childhood anti-obesity campaigner Alejandro Calvillo, drew global attention last year when he was revealed to have been targeted using the Israeli company’s spyware. The NSO Group’s programs have since been implicated in a massive espionage scandal in Panama. A month ago, respected human rights organization Amnesty International accused the company of having crafted the digital tools used to target one of its staffers.

The five Mexican plaintiffs, who were advised by Mexico City-based digital activism group widely known by its acronym R3D, are seeking 2.5 million Israeli shekels ($693,000) in compensation and an injunction to prevent the NSO Group from helping anyone spy on them.

Al-Athbah said he wanted the case to go even further and spawn restrictions on the trade in hacking tools. “I hope selling such technology should be stopped very soon,” he said.

Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City contributed to this report.

Islamic countries join Israeli Navy in the world’s largest naval exercise

August 27, 2018

Yedioth Ahronoth revealed that “the Israeli navy participated in the world’s largest maritime exercise alongside Islamic countries”.

The military expert Yoav Zitun stated on Saturday that “this exercise, known as RIMPAC is the largest on a global level. It is held to simulate the takeover of a sensitive water crossing by hostile forces similar to Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz.

Zitun added that RIMPAC 2018 included 25 thousand participants from 26 countries, 47 warships, 200 aircraft, and five submarines. The training took place in the Pacific Ocean around Hawaii.

He pointed out that it is the first time Israel participated with a delegation representing its navy.

The expert demonstrated that this exercise has been held every two years since the 1970s and joined new participant countries in each session, noting that the training lasted a month and ended two weeks ago.

He added: “Officers from countries that do not have official diplomatic relations with Israel, including Muslim countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei, as well as Vietnam and Sri Lanka, participated side by side with Israeli officers”.

Zitun said that the Israeli participation was limited in the management of the maneuver through the command and control room at the US military, naval station in Pearl Harbor.

He explained that “the exercise was based on simulating hostile forces carrying out their threat to close internationally prominent naval straits. The crews were divided into ten large combat teams, aimed at destroying hostile troops that took control of two out of five islands adjacent to Hawaii.

According to Yedioth Ahronoth, some senior Israeli generals such as Idan Ben Moshe, Commander of naval vessels, and the Naval Attaché in Washington, Gen. Amir Gutman, and Maj. Ran Steigman of the Israeli Navy participated.

Steigman was quoted saying: “We have worked with officers from the United States, Germany, Chile, Peru, Australia, Brunei, and Singapore as well as Thailand, and we have had significant training”.

He added: “They appreciated the efforts of the Israeli Navy and its achievements since the Six-Day War in 1967. We agreed that the Israeli delegation participating in the next training would be a larger one. The Americans requested that we send naval combat equipment, ground forces, and rescue crews”.

Steigman drew attention claiming: “We have seen ships manufactured by the military Israeli industries used by armies of Latin American countries, although Israel is overlooking the Mediterranean and not the Pacific, the sea is the sea.”

The Major added: “It was not the first time I have met with officers from Islamic countries with whom we have no official diplomatic relations, such as Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia. During my military studies in the United States, I have had several acquaintances with officers from Arab countries.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180827-islamic-countries-join-israeli-navy-in-the-worlds-largest-naval-exercise/.